Wednesday, February 18, 2015

to filk or not to filk, part 2

So I was recounting how filkers got tired of "Banned from Argo", although it was the best filksong ever. They even began denying that they had ever liked it. Leslie Fish, its author and composer, has been telling a story for many years now that she always detested the song and sang it only under duress, and that story appears in Gary McGath's history of filking.

All I can say is that, if Leslie felt that way when I knew her, she did an awfully good job of disguising it. Everybody loved that song, and I mean everybody. Yes, we had it only once per filking session, usually at the end, but that's because we were saving up the best for last, like a fine wine.

So let me tell you about Leslie Fish. She was the household idol, the resident goddess, of Bay Area filking, long before any of us had ever met her. We loved all her songs, not just That One, and they formed a major part of our repertoire. Her name is, I think, the most frequent on the contents pages of The Westerfilk Collection. So she knew she had some fans out here.

And the person who should be thanked for discovering her for us was a local filker named Amy Bradley (then Falkowitz), the Unknown Hero of local filking. Amy was a proto-filker, someone who brought a guitar to parties and sang with it back when few people did that. It was Amy's guitar that played at that germinal party at Octocon where regular Bay Area filking was founded.

Amy was also a dedicated Trekfan at a time when that was still not really common in fandom. I believe she had attended smaller fannish Trekcons in New York state, which is where Leslie hung out and sang her Trek and space-exploration songs. Amy certainly had Leslie's albums, she knew the songs, and she sang them regularly. There may have been other locals who knew their Fish independently, but I heard all those early songs first from Amy.

It was accordingly a Big Deal when the Off Centaur crew announced that they'd gotten Leslie Fish, herself and in person, to attend our first local filkcon, Bayfilk I. (McGath says Margaret Middleton was the GoH, but I don't think that's right. But my paperwork from those days is buried deeply.) Leslie herself has written (about 3/4 down this page) about how thrilled she was to be invited and appreciated, and how she ran back to New York to pack her stuff and move out here permanently.

We were just as excited. I remember being among the people gathered at the house - I don't recall whose, probably Cathy Cook's - where Leslie was to stay before the con, when she arrived from the airport. The door opened and in walked this gaunt, gravel-voiced, chain-smoking woman with black hair and a pale complexion, and we all tried to keep calm and not goshwowoboyoboy our way around the room. And the con was terrific. Leslie's 12-string guitar and her ever-increasing songbook, especially of Kipling settings, became a central part of our world. There were other talented singer-songwriters in our filking circles, notably Cynthia McQuillin (McGath says she was from LA, but I don't recall Cindy living there in my time; certainly for quite a while she was up here), but Leslie was supreme.

A couple other miscellaneous points on the history of filking from that period:

Bardic Circles - I could have told McGath the origin of this term. ("Pick, pass, or perform," the alternate terminology, either comes from an independent invention of the procedure, or else was concocted by someone who felt the term "Bardic circle" was too opaque for neos.) It comes from the poetry readings that Paul Edwin Zimmer, a poet who evoked the character of a bard of old, used to host at his home, Greyhaven, and also at SF cons that he attended. (Though Paul is long gone, we still have them at Mythcons.) At these the procedure was to go around the circle, and each person would either recite a poem or decline; there was no picking someone else, and singing was discouraged. But when we started the Bay Area housefilks and the question came up of how we would choose who would go next, someone who'd been to Greyhaven - possibly me - suggested we adopt the procedure of the Bardic Circles, and a filking term was born.

Ose - McGath says the catchphrase is "ose and morose." That's not how we said it in the Bay Area. With us, it was always "ose, ose, and morose," with "morose" pronounced clearly as "more ose." McGath attaches the style to Bill Roper. We knew some of Roper's songs, but at the time not him personally: for us "ose" meant Gary Anderson. A cheerful guy whom everybody liked, Gary nevertheless invariably contributed to filk sessions long, grim, morbid northlands ballads which he would mumble in an out-of-key monotone. Nobody really understood this habit, and gently mocking them as ose, ose, and morose was our way of handling this.

There's lots else I could discuss.
The Off Centaur house in El Cerrito: in the early years they didn't have that. Everyone moved around frequently back then. When we started, Teri Lee was still in an apartment in the Richmond Annex flatlands that she'd filled to bursting with her spinning.
I should mention the Westerfilk Collection art. Much of it was by Don Simpson, and highly apropos for the songs it illustrates, but none of it was drawn for the book. Don lacked the time, and possibly the inclination, to draw to order. But he let us paw through his huge collection of random drawings and take anything we wanted. It's amazing how many perfect fits we found. The rest of the art, including the cover, was by Wendy Rose, a Native American friend of Teri's, and that was commissioned for the book. Wendy occasionally came to filksings, and I remember having to explain to her what Leslie Fish's "Hope Eyrie" was about. (Here's Julia Ecklar singing Leslie's greatest space-exploration song.)
Speaking of Julia Ecklar, McGath mentions her becoming known at Capricon in 1981. That may have made her name locally in Chicago; she burst upon filkdom in general at the Chicago Worldcon the next year when she blew everyone's socks off with her adaptation of Stephen King's Firestarter, "Daddy's Little Girl." Julia was the first of a whole breed of talented singer-songwriters who found filk a small pond where they could be big enough fish (ahem) to be appreciated, instead of knocking their heads and pounding their feet in the coldness of the music biz. They did change the nature of filk, but their work certainly enriched it.


  1. We actually did "ose, ose, and morose" in the Midwest as well. At various times, Mary Jean Holmes and I would find ourselves in an ose-off... :)

  2. Wonderful observations, and in general pretty much what I remember. I do have one correction: I may have "transcribed" a lot of Leslie Fish's Star Trek filk, but that would never have happened if my good friend Signe Danler (nee Landon) hadn't gone to a Chicago con (I think it was a Trek con) with a portable cassette recorder and taped Leslie's performance at the con. I was able to write back and forth to Leslie (yeah, let's hear it for Snail Mail, 'cause we didn't have anything else back then!) to get her help on the chords for the songs. But I actually HAND TRANSCRIBED those songs and several of them were published in The Other Side Of Paradise (Signe's and my mostly Trek fanzine) before they ended up in Westerfilk. And I still LOVE Banned From Argo!
    A side note to show how music can "cross contaminate": in discussing chording with Leslie on "Iron Mistress," she told me she suddenly realized that she'd lifted the melody from Steeleye Span's version of "Blackleg Miner." Several other friends had mentioned how much they liked Steeleye Span, and this final reference from Leslie convinced me I had to go check them out. I went to a local record store and bought my first couple of Span albums—which I still have! I fell in love with Span, thanks to Leslie and others.
    I almost forgot to mention that Signe and I also did some illustrations for the Westerfilk collection (although it might have been for volume II).

    1. Glory, I'd forgotten where the our published transcriptions of Leslie's songs came from. They must have come from you. Thanks twice, then.

      And I first heard Steeleye Span when the LA Filkharmonics sung some of their numbers (including "Gaudete" at Mythcon VIII. From that much followed, including virtually my entire non-classical musical interests.

      I'm sure your illos must have been in Westerfilk II, which I didn't work on, because the first was just Don and Wendy.

  3. Yes, I was GoH at Bayfilk I, that's why the cassette that came out from that was Margaret Middleton at Bayfilk I, not Leslie Fish at Bayfilk I. At this range of time I don't recall exactly what mechanism brought Leslie out there for the con, but her move out to the Bay Area was a direct result of her attendance there.